More than 100 years ago the pioneering psychologist William James wrote: “The greatest revolution in our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” How true this is when it comes to suffering.
“In life there is suffering.” We don’t even need to be familiar with Buddhism’s famous “Four Noble Truths” to know that. Turn on the news, listen to friends who are unwell or lonely, tune in to what may be happening in our own homes and hearts and there’s suffering in abundance, sometimes especially in the midst of material wealth.
So I guess the urgent question for thoughtful people is how much of this suffering is inevitable. And how much is avoidable? Injustice, health issues, disappointments, disharmony, loneliness, fear – and especially fear of death – these are real enough. But isn’t it true that some of the suffering we experience – or cause for ourselves or others -is not necessary. In fact, not only is it avoidable, it should be avoided.
The kind words someone needs but we withhold; the willing hand we don’t lend; blaming others for our ugly moods; unkindness to others because we feel “bad”; the addictions or rages that we refuse to master; the greed with which we demand or insist upon our “rights”; an inflated view of ourselves – or miring ourselves in self-pity or inadequacy; our pleasure in revenge… these are just a few of the familiar ways we can increase suffering for others.
When it comes to ourselves, do we dwell far more obsessively on what’s going wrong in our lives than on what’s positive and uplifting? Do we speak to or about ourselves in violent or helpless ways? Do we “doom” ourselves to greater loneliness by being overly self-critical or bitter? Do we stoke our fears, rather than asking that beautiful and most simple question: “What’s needed here?” Do we take it for granted that the anxieties we have felt in the past must travel with us into the future? Or that the mistakes we have made must accompany us to the grave? Do we fail to speak our appreciation? Or see the beauty even in the darkest days?
The craziness of this is, of course, that in causing any note of unnecessary suffering for ourselves or for other people, we keep our own world much smaller than it needs to be. And we keep ourselves smaller than we need to be, and possibly miserable.
No matter how hard we try or old we become we will sometimes hurt others. We will sometimes miss the precious chance to lift someone’s spirits. We will sometimes dwell on our failings rather than our strengths. We will sometimes inflate our suffering or hope that someone else will appear to “save” us. But that can happen increasingly less often – and for ever-briefer moments.
If such moments do occur – and they will – we can apologize meaningfully, learn something, and move on.
Kindness, appreciation, good humour and compassion, curiosity and vitality: these are the timeless treasures of a happier life. Being the cause of greater happiness for others – and for your own precious self – doesn’t depend on wit, wealth or brilliance: it depends on self-awareness. Awareness of your power to lift others’ spirits, and your own.
This doesn’t mean that there will be no suffering in your life. Or in the lives of your loved ones. But there will be less suffering. And when the suffering of illness or loss or death does show its face, you will meet it with greater compassion and far less fear.
Please also see Stephanie Dowrick’s Forgiveness & Other Acts of Love and Choosing Happiness. http://stephaniedowrick.seekbooks.com.au/